By Emil Danielyan
Leading Azerbaijani politicians sought on Tuesday to put a brave face on NATO’s embarrassing decision to cancel long-planned military exercises in Azerbaijan, saying that it is outweighed by the failure of Armenian soldiers to set foot on their soil.
The multinational maneuvers codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2004 were called off just hours before their scheduled start near Baku on Monday after their five Armenian participants were barred from entering Azerbaijan.
“We protested at the visit of those who have occupied our lands and shed the blood of our people, and we have achieved our goal,” the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, Murtuz Aleskerov, was reported to tell fellow lawmakers.
One of them, Ibrahim Isayev, accused NATO of being “led by the nose” by the Armenians who have tried hard to participate in the exercises planned as part of the U.S.-led alliance’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program of which both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members. “At the same time, we have succeeded in barring Armenians from Baku, so let me congratulate you on that,” he added, according to the Turan news agency.
Qudrat Hasanquliyev, the leader of the United People's Front of Azerbaijan Party, went farther, describing NATO’s punitive action as a “major achievement” for his country. “Our people have shown their unity,” he said.
The most enthusiastic reaction came from a hardline Azerbaijani pressure group that has for months campaigned for Armenia’s exclusion from the exercises. Turan reported that the Karabakh Liberation Organization (KLO) hailed their cancellation as a “small step toward the liberation of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”
KLO activists vehemently protested the presence of two Armenian Defense Ministry officials at an exercise planning conference held in Baku last June. Six of them, including the group’s radical leader Akif Nagi, were arrested and jailed for breaking into the conference hall.
Many in Azerbaijan believe that the Armenian participation in the war games would have offended their country which suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1991-94 war for Nagorno-Karabakh which they see as an Armenian “aggression.”
But at least one prominent politician, Zardusht Alizade, strongly disagrees with the anti-Armenian outcry. The Baku daily “Zerkalo” quoted him as describing it as “absolutely silly and non-constructive.” “The Armenians may have arrived or may have not arrived, but that would have in no way affected the resolution of the Karabakh problem,” he said.
The PfP rules prevent a host country from keeping out any participants invited to an event by the NATO command, a fact stressed by NATO officials. Their decision was endorsed by the United States, with the State Department saying that it “deeply regrets” Baku’s decision not to issue visas to the Armenian officers.
In Yerevan, meanwhile, Armenian officials again welcomed the exercise cancellation. Deputy Foreign Minister Tatul Markarian told a visiting delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the NATO member states that the alliance’s “principled position” will contribute to regional stability.